A new project from American Diplomacy
AN EXPERIMENT IN ORAL HISTORY
Comments by MICHAEL H. HUNT
Several decades of research had left me underwhelmed by the value of oral history. All too often in the transcripts that I consulted on U.S. foreign policy, the interviewers did not know enough or press hard enough, cautious interviewees held back, or issues that preoccupied me simply fell through the cracks. Hours of fruitless reading made me sympathetic to the dismissal of oral history by the distinguished British historian, A. J. P. Taylor, as old men drooling about their youth.*
My ideas on how to create a more fruitful interplay between historians of U.S. policy and those who participated in its shaping were inchoate until a recent series of talks on Cold War history got me thinking. After each talk I would be approached by members of the audience who had taken part in events that I had talked about. Their revealing remarks reminded me of the wealth of memory banked in the community of retired foreign affairs professionals. Reflecting on how historians might more successfully mine these rich memories, it suddenly occurred to me that we might supplement the standard interview by arranging a sort of seminar. The centerpiece of the seminar would be readings germane to the interviewer's special research topic and selected for the light they might shed on some facet of the interviewee's career. Appropriately selected readings might provide the basis for a sustained, in-depth discussion of some particular policy question and elicit broad impressions and even specific details otherwise lost in superficial, generic interviews. These readings might consist of some newly declassified documents on what the White House was thinking about France, written at the very time the interviewee was sending political reports from Paris. It might be a contemporary Cuban pamphlet on a topic that was then also preoccupying the interviewee. It might even be a recent scholarly workfor example, on Mideast policythat might provoke the interviewee into a sharper, more detailed version of how things really seemed then in the region as opposed to how it might seem to historians today.
The interviewer would certainly stand to gain from this structured exchange by having the formal documentary record or the conventional academic wisdom confirmed, supplemented, qualified, or even set in doubt. But so too, it struck me, would interviewees with their keen interest in revisiting their past professional experiences and setting those experiences in a broader context and a richer perspective not possible at the time.
Three UNC doctoral candidates in historyChristopher Endy, Matthew Jacobs, and Alan McPhersonworking on U.S. Cold War policy toward three different regions agreed to participate in an experiment testing the feasibility of this approach. What follows are accounts of how this experiment fared, as well as some notes on interviewing method.
*Quoted in Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford, 1988), 70.
Continue reading A Venture in Scholarship pages